To begin, let me say I did this race for the first, and I swore it would be the final, time in 2008.
Let's do a recap of the '08 event:
- Make the time cut on the first crit because everybody did. Because of the rain and number of crashes, no one got cut.
- Place 28th in the TT
- Barely hold on to the field during the finishing Cannon Falls circuits
- Cling to the very last of the field during the Minneapolis criterium
- Get annihilated on Mankato's finishing circuit climb. Sit on the curb and want to cry from suffering, but it was too hot and I simply didn't have the energy.
- Make the bare minium of Stillwater crit laps to still finish the race
- Finish 8th in the amateur standings, 43rd in the general classification (GC)
Fast forward to 2009. In planning my season, I did not include the NVGP since it had been hellish from my perspective and this is a hobby. No reason to torture oneself, but as you know, time takes the edge off and about a month before the Hillsboro qualifying race, I began to consider how much I'd learned since then. I figured if any measure of progress would have validity, it would be the NVGP. Of course, I kept it to myself, reminding myself I couldn't afford it, it would take too much time, the fact it wasn't even on my training/race annual plan, so my coach had not been prepping me for it and so on. There were many excellent reasons to forgo the event. Nonetheless, when I approached the table at Hillsboro and saw the sign-up sheet for the Nature Valley Pro Ride amateur team, I paused. If I got the Pro Ride spot, that would solve the money problem. I could probably sort the other challenges out. I signed, rode hard and secured the berth.
"It's not going to be like you're on a real team. Everyone will be out to prove themselves, etc.," some warned.
I decided that didn't matter. I would ride as if it were a cohesive team because my goal was to demonstrate I knew how to do that and that I'd be a dependable composite or guest rider if I got that opportunity.
After Matt Anderson sent out the contact sheets, I popped an email to the other women, and all sounded friendly. I checked their results. All appeared to be solid riders and I began to get excited about our teamwork prospects.
The date crept closer - two days till I was to meet them.
The date crept closer - two days till I was to meet them.
Oh no. There was that tell-tale tickle in the back of my sore throat. Please let it be allergies, but I knew in my heart it was a head-cold. I needed to be at my best and here I would be fighting illness and fatigue. I couldn't breath well. Consequently, I couldn't sleep. I was tired. Sick. And bummed. The only bright spot was that I heal up from those things fairly quickly and the TT would be first. I was confident I could make the time cut there and then, if I could just stay with the lead group during the St. Paul crit that evening, even if I was dead last with that group, I would have the same time going into the 2nd day. My plan was to sit in, hang on and hope I could do whatever I was tasked with for the team beginning stage 3.
Our squad was blessed with excellent support supplied by Penn Cycle and directed by Michael Ingleman. If you don't know who he is, you should. He was also directing Kristin Armstrong. Engleman supplied me with a disc for my TT bike and after warming up, I went out and did what I thought I could do. When the results were posted, I was shocked to find I'd cut 25 seconds off of the previous year's attempt on the same course and ended up 19th in the GC and 2nd in the amateur standings, 6 seconds down from Kate Veronneau, who's from Pennsylvania, I think.
At first I was pleased, then after seeing I was the highest placed woman on my team in the GC, I knew that if we were going to function as a team, I was now the lead rider, and quite honestly, I had been hoping it would be someone else. I was sick, lacking confidence for the event, and unsure I could deliver.
For those of you new to the sport, or uninitiated entirely, road racing is a team game. The lead rider gets the support of her teammates, who sacrifice their own ambitions to help preserve and further the lead rider's positioning. Because of the sacrifices others make, the burden of performance weighs heavy on a lead rider and she must never squander the energy put forth on her behalf and she must never forget her results represent the team's efforts, so she must give everything she's got.
Our composite group went into team mode immediately and without prompting. After I met them the first evening, I knew they were competent and friendly, but I don't think anyone expected the kind of teamwork that immediately came about. We were watchful of each other and every time I needed a little help getting further to the front, it seemed a teammate was coming up and onto her wheel I would jump.
After stage 3, the Cannon Falls race, I moved to 11th in the GC because of a huge crash which took out many of the leaders. I was shocked. I was within sight of the top 10. I sat in during the Minneapolis Uptown crit (stage 4) and came into the 86 mile Mankato race with a single objective: hang on to the front group no matter what.
I stayed on mission. I kept out of the wind and towards the front, but never on the front. My teammates made sure I had water. I ate on schedule. If anyone was ever preserved for the final trial, it was me. We descended into Mankato at high speed and hit the circuit of which we must do 4 laps. The loop has .4 mile, 14% average grade climb followed by a screaming descent onto a flat. My first ascent, I do OK, but slip backwards a bit. I work to recover some ground on the descent. I steeled myself for the second time. I told myself I must do better. I must not lose this group, but my legs didn't hear. I couldn't figure out how to get them to push a bigger gear or turn the cranks a little faster. A bit of panic crept in. I felt my body stiffen.
"Don't fight your bike. Relax. Let it move. Find a rhythm."
I focused on this and sure enough the bike moved forward better, but it was too little too late. The selection had been made. I quelled the disappointment and resolved to not let the group I was in, which include Veronneau, get the best of me. I might not have been able to take the top spot from Kate, but I could surely irretrievably lose it. I simply couldn't let this happen. I knew I'd lost the GC positioning despite my team's efforts. I couldn't lose the bid for the amateur spot, too. I held on and even gave a little sprint to come across the line first in my group, though it counted for little beyond emotional satisfaction. It would have been much smarter to have attacked the group earlier on the circuit and tried to regain some precious seconds. Losing the lead group moved me from 11th to 21st in the GC. I remained 2nd in the amateur by the same 6 sec. Although I felt like I let the team down, I did perform much better than the previous year. Fortunately, Olivia Dillion, brought some glory to the team with her bridge to the break and eventual 4th place finish.
Stillwater was the final and most challenging stage. The circuit has a race-defining climb with a 19% grade. I got a call-up, so had great positioning and made the first lap with the leaders. Gap opened midway up the climb on the 2nd lap and just got bigger. I was hurting terribly and my teammates were invaluable in their encouragement. More than once I grabbed their wheels and recovered ground. In fact, had I been able to hold onto Tricia, I would have finished with the second group. She did fabulously well and completed all 13 laps.
On lap 4 o 5, I thought I had lost Veronneau. She was about two blocks in front of me, but I just told myself to pace like a TT and hang on. Finally I came by her and while I kept looking over my shoulder to see her coming, she never did. I wonder if she had a mechanical or something? Kate was a strong rider and made those six seconds seem as insurmountable as 10 minutes or even an hour.
I ended the week with a win in the amateur division and 31st in the GC. I heard 130 women started, but those not making the time cut were not published, so that could be in error. In any case, I was pleased with the progress from last year and am proud to wear the Nature Valley jersey.
I'd like to give a huge thank you to everyone who makes my racing possible.
Thank you to my dad and mom who welcome my boys to their home so I can travel. I especially appreciate my dear mom who takes over my spin classes. My coach must not be forgotten. It takes a lot of time to analyze power files and craft an annual plan for someone with high aspirations. Without a good bike, you won't do much bike racing, so I'd like to extend gratitude to Joyride Bicycles whose sponsorship put me aboard a Specialized Ruby SL and Transition this season.
Finally, a HUGE thanks goes out to Michael Ingleman and everyone involved in the Nature Valley Pro Ride and event. Ingleman volunteered his time and advice. I know I learned a great deal. I also thought the program was well run. The stipend as adequate and expenses were reimbursed quickly. The mechanics were superb. The tent was always stocked with food and drink. Someone was always telling me to sit down and let them take care of it. I thought that if this was the kind of treatment pros got, it's a huge advantage.
THANK YOU NATURE VALLEY. I'm going to figure out how to get back there next year and see if my focus on climbing pays off.